Scenes from a PD (Nurturing a Culture of Writers)

Six Word Memoirs

I have the good fortune to be part of a team through our Western Massachusetts Writing Project who is working with an urban middle school around the theme of “Nurturing a Culture of Writers” this year. I won’t say everything is completely smooth and easy. The teachers we are working with are overwhelmed with initiatives this year, and we are having them do a lot of reading and planning around writing with their students.

Six Word Shoutouts

The other day, as part of our opening “writing into the day” activity, we had them write Six Word Memoirs and then, Six Word Shout-outs — noticing someone else and giving them praise. You’d be surprised at how powerful six words can be and how this simple activity, with both its inward and outward look, really changed the tone of the session, and set the stage for some incredible discussions and activities around writing in the content areas.

I worked with math teachers for part of the day, and talking about using writing in the math class is always tricky. We used the “newspaper front page” activity as an example of public writing (which was our theme). We had fun creating articles and then discussing connections to content understanding.

Newspaper Front Page

We were very pleased with how our professional development day went with these teachers, who are all so dedicated to helping their students make progress with writing and higher order thinking. I worry that they are being spread so thin by an ever-increasing series of mandates from their district, and from our state.  You can see it in their faces, and in their body language. I admire their resiliency, and appreciate that they bought into our writing PD over the four hours we were with them.

Peace (in making PD count),

The Conundrum of Talking about Access, Equity, and Diversity

The topic at the Connected Courses is all on the topic of access, equity and diversity. While I know the lens is to think about how to build and facilitate online learning spaces that reflect these values, the theme and topic got me thinking about my Western Massachusetts Writing Project. A number of years ago, we were involved in the National Writing Project’s Project Outreach initiative as a way to do some soul-searching about the teachers we were reaching (or not reaching) and the students who were being impacted by our PD programs (or not being impacted).

WMWP Project Outreach from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

The study looked at regional demographics, socio-economics, membership in our local writing project, surveys and written reflections of various people within the writing project and beyond the writing project, and so much more. The result of all that work were clear signs that we were not doing enough to target our urban centers and our teachers of color, and therefore, the students in those urban and rural schools, particularly where poverty was a significant issue. We had some changes to make if we believed we needed to reach a wider audience with our work.

These days, as we consider PD programs for schools and teachers, we now make sure we consider issues of equity and access as part of our criteria. We moved some of our WMWP board meetings into a nearby urban center, away from the University of Massachusetts. We are using NWP funding for PD programs targeted for schools in underserved areas with struggling socio-economic issues.

These insights also led to the collaborative writing of a Vision Statement aimed to reflect a diverse stand.

The mission of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project, is to create a professional community where teachers and other educators feel welcomed to come together to deepen individual and collective experiences as writers and our understanding of teaching and learning in order to challenge and transform our practice. Our aim is to improve learning in our schools — urban, rural and suburban.

Professional development provided by the Western Massachusetts Writing Project values reflection and inquiry and is built on teacher knowledge, expertise, and leadership.

Central to our mission is the development of programs and opportunities that are accessible and relevant to teachers, students, and their families from diverse backgrounds, paying attention to issues of race, gender, language, class and culture and how these are linked to teaching and learning.

But I have to say, the push into social justice and the guiding of our writing project into themes of equity and access and diversity has not been without its cost. We’ve lost long-time writing project members who worry that the original mission of helping teachers and their students with writing has been sidelines by the push into a more politicized stance. Some have grown a bit weary of the constant social justice themes. These are not educators who don’t believe in these issues, just that by making them so visible and so constant, we’ve made those themes the emerging identity of the writing project.

Frankly, I find myself mixed on the whole issue. I do believe in increasing access, instilling equity in the educational system and fostering diversity so that we have different points from which to connect and speak. I strongly believe in the ethos of the National Writing Project, of teachers teaching teachers. I hope that the work we do filters down into the classrooms of urban, rural and suburban communities, nurturing a generation of strong writers. I think that our writing project’s advocacy against standardized testing as the sole measure of student growth and, possibly, teacher evaluations is commendable.

We’re planning a spring symposium right now that meshes issues of technology, social justice and educational assessment issues under one roof for discussions and workshops and break-out sessions, and conversations. We’re even trying to hold the symposium in a new UMass facility that just opened up in the large urban center of our region.

Still, when many discussions come filtered through the social justice lens, it can feel as if the “writing” part of things and the “teaching” elements get lost in the rhetorical shuffle, replaced by a political action lens. And to be honest, the teachers we are most trying to reach with our social justice themes are swamped with other requirements for their profession. Adding a symposium or weekend event to their over-worked schedule is tricky and requires a bit of public relations/media savviness of our part. We need to make the offering practical while also diving deep into some sensitive issues.

The topics of “access, equity, diversity” are so highly rhetorically-charged in education that we sometimes lose sight of the kids, struggling to learn in classrooms in schools without enough resources. And don’t forget the teachers, our colleagues who are stressed by the increasing strain of data collection and growth charts. It’s all about the balance.

Peace (in the think),


Poetry Analysis with Meme Creation

I had the good fortune to sit in on a workshop at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the topic was how to use memes for literary analysis, with a look at poetry in particular. The presenter was a middle school teacher, Jacqueline Desmarais, and she had us looking at memes and then using them to analyze Emily Dickinson’s poem, I’m Nobody – Who Are You?. This piece speaks to fame, and privacy, so connects nicely to the issue of viral media in this modern age.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog!

Jacqueline asked us to create a few memes, based on the poem itself, and here are two that I came up with, as rebuttals to privacy issues.



Next, we had to write an analysis of our meme creation, which is a smart way to bring thinking into the activity.

This is what I wrote:

I chose Grumpy Cat and Dos Equis man for my two memes inspired by the Emily Dickson poem, I’m Nobody. Staying within context and structure of the meme can be tricky, as you are fitting an idea into a prescribed slot. Plus, the visual literacy skills rise to the surface here. Add in the tone of humor or satire or sarcasm, and you notice rather quickly that tere’s a lot going on with composing a meme.

For the Grumpy Cat meme, I used the caption “Face Recognition Software Found Me …. It was awful.”

For the Dos Equis meme, I wrote, “I don’t always share my data with Pearson…. but when I do, I’m Nobody.”

I was aiming to get at the poem’s central idea of controlling your identity, and keeping that privacy sacred. In these times where corporations are leveraging technology and digital media, and social networking spaces, for their own financial gains, it is increasingly difficult to keep that privacy wall up, short of not participating in the technological revolution now underway. With our students, this is an issue, and teaching them about the benefits and the drawbacks of engagement with digital media and online spaces is a critical part of preparing them for the world.

We can do this without the fear tactics – of bringing in the district attorney’s office and state police units to talk about violations and legalities. We need to put the agency of privacy and identity into the hands of our students. They need tools. They need clear information. They need us to be on their side, and not always in a punitive manner. Using memes to help teach this lesson could be just one way into the digital composition.

What I was thinking was a natural extension from this lesson is the idea of a remix, of changing the tenor and tone of the meme, and for making their own localized memes – cultural references that only can be “read” by a local audience (school-based, for example). This would provide some intriguing discussions around the concept of viral information, in both the possibilities and the drawbacks.

Peace (in the meme),

WMWP Keynote Anne Marie Osheyak: We Are Not JUST Teachers

Anne Marie Osheyak was our keynote speaker at last weekend’s Western Massachusetts Writing Project Best Practices conference. Anne Marie is the 2014 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and an advocate of social justice in education, as well as a powerful educator with strong views on the profession of teaching.

This video collects some of the elements of her keynote address, which was met with a standing ovation from the conference as she reminded us to “reclaim our voices” as teachers in this age of data points and assessments, and that none of us are “just teachers.”

We ARE teachers.

Peace (in the talk),

What’s Your Community? The National Day on Writing

Paper Circuitry NDOW Collage4 2014
Today is the sixth annual National Day on Writing, sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English and various partners (like the National Writing Project) and this year’s theme is Writing Your Community. I’ve been mulling over how best to do this, and decided that mapping out communities — either literally or metaphorically — made a lot of sense.

Check out this workshop that I led at our Western Massachusetts Writing Project this weekend, in which we played around with paper circuitry to illuminate nodes on maps of our communities. This workshop was part of our annual Best Practices conference, and the group of teachers were highly engaged in this hands-on activity around transforming notebooks with circuits and lights.

Peace (in the notebook),

Short Video Vignettes from WMWP for #OurNWP

As part of an effort to create an archive of the National Writing Project for its 40th year anniversary (called OurNWP), I went into our Western Massachusetts Writing Project video archives and pulled out a few short pieces that we have done in the past few years, usually around the National Day on Writing. I love how our voices come together as teacher, writers, colleagues.

I also donated to the cause, as the effort to create the archive is slated to require about $100,000 to complete and NWP is halfway there. I gave a donation in honor of a past WMWP Director, Charlie Moran, whose work in the field of writing, and with our writing project (as a founding member), paved the way for many a great idea, and whose thinking has always pushed me forward, particularly around the ideas of digital literacy.

Peace (in the sharing),

WMWP: Revisiting and Rethinking Assessment

Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project is focusing in on assessment this year as our inquiry theme, and our annual fall event — WMWP Best Practices — in October will have the focus of pushing against the confines of assessment and exploring more ways to shine a light on student learning, as opposed to data collection.

WMWP Best Practices 2014 by KevinHodgson

If you teach in Western Massachusetts, please consider joining us for what will be a great day of connecting and collaborating and sharing knowledge (plus, lunch is included). Here is the link for online registration.

Peace (in the event),

I had Stickers – An Early Childhood Appreciation

The other day, I volunteered to lead a family poetry workshop at Barnes and Noble to support our Western Massachusetts Writing Project. I didn’t know what to expect, so I gathered up a bunch of supplies for a Post It Sticky Note Poetry idea. I had a bunch of small mentor texts (haiku, couplets, shape poems, etc.) along with lots of art supplies.


I set up in the little staging area of the children’s section, still not sure who would come and participate. Now, remember, I teach sixth grade and spend my days in the midst of 11 and 12 year olds. And I have three boys of my own, two teenagers and one 9 year old.

So, imagine my surprise when I was surrounded by a group of five girls — ages 3 and 4 — with their parents for the poetry workshop. I was a fish out of water because clearly my plans for writing and understanding poetry styles would not connect with this group of energetic mostly-pre-writing girls. I was in a sixth grade mindset and that would not work here.

Luckly, I had stickers! Lots of stickers! And that led to some post-it poems, of a sort (well, more like drawings) and some basic rhyming games. Some of the girls could write some basic words, so we wrote rhymes. For others … it was all about the stickers and post-it notes.

That was OK but it reminded me (again) of the task before our early childhood colleagues who are often faced with a class full of young learners who might or might not have had preschool experience, might or might not have had parents read to them regularly, might or might not have had pre-writing experiences, and the range of literacy was staggering in that little group.

It was fun and enlightening, and certainly a very different kind of teaching experience for me, one that reminded me to appreciate the kinds of days that my colleagues often have, and how grateful I am as a sixth grade teacher for all the work that gets done in the years before my students reach me to get them ready for the rigor of our learning.

Thank you, teachers.

Peace (with stickers)


Teachers’ Voices: So, You Want to Write for the Newspaper

I led a roundtable discussion yesterday at NCTE around nurturing teacher voices, and my roundtable topic was about how to encourage teachers to use their local newspapers as a platform for writing and publishing, and changing the dialogue around education. The work is informed by a strong partnership that our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has with a regional newspaper to feature teacher-writers once a month. I used this handout as a way to encourage individual teachers but also groups of teachers to consider the local newspaper as a conduit for positive news.

NCTE Session Getting It in the Paper by KevinHodgson

Peace (in the news),